Tuesday, August 29, 2006
New Word Processor
Does anybody watch Rescue Me? Since it is on FX, it does get pretty risque, but the more I watch, the more I like it. Denis Leary has always played edgy characters, but he's really honed it well in this role.
In Alaska, summer ends abruptly, around the time school starts. So, fall is in the air, already. We had our first frost last night, and a few aspens have started to turn yellow. Although the equinox is still 3 weeks away, by the time that rolls around we are already beginning to dread the first snowfall. Summer is so short here; we always want to make the best of it. Because of the long daylight we have to try to cram as much as possible into its few days. That can be fun, when the weather cooperates.
This year it didn't. I wasn't keeping count, but in mid-August, Emily reported 99 days of clouds and rain since May 1 (we tend to cheat and call May a summer month - because of its long days). Summers here have never been predictable. Some years it is hot (almost 80F on occasion!) and dry with intense blue skies (if there are no forest fires). Other years it is gray, drizzly, and cold. This year the thermometer crossed 70F only three times. One of our worst summers, ever - like the summers in the early 1980s. Depressing...
We really do have four seasons, just like everyone else, we just call it something else: before-winter (also known as brown), winter (white), after-winter (brown again) and summer (green). Winter lasts from Oct 1 to April 15, brown is usually mid-Sept to Oct 1, and again from mid-April to mid-May. Green is the four short months in between the browns. Add a crappy summer to the mix, and we wonder (again) why we continue to stay here.
And here comes winter, already...
[This was pretty easy to post from Writely to my blog, but the download from Writely didn't carry the title into the blog itself - although the title shows up in the list of posts(?) I had to edit the blog in Blogger to add the title...]
Monday, August 28, 2006
Using the whole bow
Just like in our early lessons last winter, I tripped and stumbled over the simplest parts, forgetting notes, missing them altogether... I was quite embarrassed. That only made it worse. I thought I'd been doing so well (intonation issues aside). I was surprised, too, since I thought I'd gotten over any nervousness with my teacher. Maybe it was the different setting. I can't really come up with a good reason for it.
After a while, I did relax a bit, and things went better; but I still made so many stupid mistakes that I never make at home. I felt so lame telling my teacher that I really can play these pieces better; like I was trotting out the old "dog ate my homework" excuse.
We worked on bowing techniques, maintaining proper angles between the bow and the fingerboard, and the bow and the string; keeping the bow halfway between the fingerboard and the bridge. Also, we worked on using the whole bow - that's why we were doing the Suzuki 1 pieces - supposedly I knew them well enough that I wouldn't have to stumble over the notes. Egads! In my practice sessions since then, I've focused on these particular bowing issues and have not worried that much about intonation.
Eventually, we turned to the Bach Minuet #2 (piece #15 in Book 1). At my last lesson, I told her I felt like I'd hit a wall on this one, so she suggested I put it aside until the next lesson. When we picked it up, I did rather well on it (a few surprising misses - in some of the more familiar areas), but all in all... OK. We talked about which parts were good (I like that approach), then we worked slowly on some of the more complicated areas.
She then suggested we work through the Bach Minuet in C (piece #14 in Book 1). We had skipped over it several months ago - she told me she thought it belonged somewhere in Book 2. She complimented my sight-reading. :) Then, we talked about some of its "issues". I have since played it quite satisfactorily in my practice sessions. Since my next lesson would not be for another 3 weeks, she suggested picking up the next piece in Book 2, #6, "Hunter's Chorus" by von Weber. I actually started to object, saying I feared I was pushing too fast, but she pointed out that 3 weeks is a long stretch, and it might not hurt to "start" working on it, line by line, very slowly.
Next session, we'll work on the second position pieces.
I told her I'd been thinking about joining the Kenai Community Orchestra. She thought it would be a great idea! I wondered if I was jumping the gun, but she said I shouldn't find the pieces very hard - the cello parts are mostly first position. The experience should help me with timing, counting, and especially with performing in front of others. OK, I will give it a try - in two weeks. Now I have something new to get worked up about.
I really love reading your blog! Thanks so much for pointing it out to me.
So everybody runs into this this problem. In the past year it's turned around a bit. I feel I play better at my teacher's than I do at home (Different teacher, but I it's not the teacher's fault). It might be because I know what she's looking for and I make a more concentrated effort to do the little things that I know she expects. If something blows up, that's not so imprortant, that's just "beginner-ness." What is important to her is the little crescendo here, the full bow there, the bringing out of this note, the backing off of that note, the more vibrato here, the less vibrato there. It sounds off-putting and too much detail, but when you get into the little nuances, you forget about how hard it's supposed to be.
I've been reading "Cello Story" by Dimitry Markevitch, in which he offers a "family tree" of students of the noted 18th century French Cellist, Jean-Pierre DuPort - which eventually leads to Popper, Piatigorsky, and Feuermann. Who knows, maybe one day your connection to the great Zambo will be similarly documented?
But that's not so unusual. I had my current teacher and Nicholas Anderson at my home for dinner a couple of months ago and they got into talking about well-known cellists. I was amazed at how many people they knew, met, or knew about, in common. Cello is such a small world. All in all, there's not many great cellists, but far fewer great cello teachers, and everybody is separated from anybody else by just a few individuals, even if we don't know it.
By the way, when he was out here he visited the widow of Gregor Piatigorsky. He got his copy of her book signed by her. I gather it was an interesting and moving meeting.
I get so tense at the beginning of my lessons as well, my teacher doesn't seem to care. As he comes to me, I think I'm going to try practising a bit before he arrives to get some of it over with. Of course, when he's in front of me my bow seems to stop moving!
Ah well, they all seem to understand.
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Friday, August 25, 2006
Recording yesterday's lesson (#15)
Then we more or less forgot about it until we were done. The one-hour session used up about 500 MB of memory. After a brief learning curve convincing it to playback properly through my laptop (I had to tinker with a lot of volume settings - and uncheck a box marked "digital speaker"; and I had to adjust the gain slider in Audacity a bit), I was able to listen to the full session.
I was impressed with the remarkably good quality and full detail of the recording. I won't go into my impressions of my own playing (I promised I wouldn't), but it was interesting to hear us work through all the pieces - and to compare my teacher's cello to mine. It's interesting to compare the waveforms from when she plays a note to me playing the same note. Intonation aside, I can see that I have a very long way to go to master my bow.
My next step is to convert it to a wmv format and archive it onto a CD.
She made one suggestion that really hits home - after playing a piece, take a moment to figure out what went right and what sounded good, rather than focusing so much on what went wrong. Then, if I must, analyze why those parts went right.
In today's practice, I tried, I really did. But it's going to take some effort to acknowledge that the cup is half-full, rather than half-empty (in fact the engineer in me disagrees with both points of view, saying instead that the cup is obviously too big).
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Thursday, August 24, 2006
In spite of your impressive service as our ninth planet the last 3/4 of a century, you failed to achieve tenure.
Your services as a planet are no long required.
You have been downsized.
(Sorry about that. It's all due to your crazy orbit... canted too far, I guess, out of the central plane. Having that moon doesn't help much, apparently.)
You have been reduced in rank, demoted.
You have been stripped of your titles.
You have become a minor player in our restructured solar system.
You are no longer considered a part of the core business.
You have been redeployed.
You shall henceforth be considered a dwarf planet.
Please hand over your key to the executive washroom and remove your personal effects from your cubicle by the end of the day.
You shall be removed from all orreries.
But, hey, thanks for the last 76 years!
Here's your gold watch!
See you at our next picnic!
See full story here.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
We become so accustomed to seeing our reflections in mirrors (which are reversed left-for-right) that we are often startled to see ourselves in a double reflection or even in a photo, because our self-perception is that mirror image. I've known people to not even recognize themselves in photos. The same holds true with recording our voices - many people are quite surprised to hear a recording of themselves speaking. So it must be with our music. When we hear a recording of our music, it is naturally going to be quite different from what we "hear" as we are actually playing the music.
Clearly I've been way too obsessed... overanalyzing everything (I was a chemist, after all). I have been far too focused on the physical details of the process. I assumed that if I could identify, dissect and analyze an errant action in detail (down to its quantum microskills), I should be able to fix it. But, Heisenberg says that you can't measure something at a quantum level without impacting whatever it is you are trying to measure.
But what am I really expecting to reveal from continually trying to assess where I am along the road to becoming a cellist? That I have just barely begun this journey and I still have a long, long way to go? Rather than continue to try to figure out where I am all the time, I'm ready to move on. My obsessive focus on trying to pinpoint where I am has been impacting my ability to just let go and play as good as I can.
So, ahem, I'm taking it all back. Kindly ignore my last several posts on this topic; they are but the inane bleatings of an overly analytical, self-deluded mind! Harrumph!
I'll continue to blog about general musings and my "actions" as I study the cello, avoiding too much analysis of my perceptions of the "results".
If I were you, I'd try to focus on playing music. Express yourself with your cello. That's what it's for--expressing some emotion or feeling with sound.
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Tuesday, August 22, 2006
I'm climbing out of my slump. In spite of this past week's self-doubts, I have been busy working on some other things... First, I've now played a week without my fingertip protector. A solid callous had slowly developed underneath the fingercot. Now, I'm finally free of it! That might account for some of the recent changes in my sound.
The first hour of each day's practice has been devoted to fingering drills, training them to second position. I start each note slowly and repeatedly, searching for a clear ringing tone. Then I play it again and again, up and down, alternating open notes and octaves, etc. Slowly, my fingers are starting to know where to go in second position, shifting in and out more rapidly and accurately.
Today, I focused away from my fingering to my bowing - paying more attention to the planes and angles of the bow to the fingerboard. A few minor changes in those angles - repositioning my arm and wrist - helped stop a lot of some recent screeching on the d-string. While I was thinking about the bow, I noticed that my left fingers were doing pretty good on their own, on autopilot. I know intonation will keep on getting better...
Yesterday, I decided my a-string sounded a bit "muddy". I put on some magnifying goggles to inspect the bridge, and I noticed the string was deeply dug in (almost fully buried) to the piece of parchment attached to the bridge. It looked like it might have cut through the parchment at one point. The books say the strings are supposed to be embedded by no more than 1/3 to 1/2 of their thickness into the top of the bridge.
I covered the top of the cello around the bridge with paper towels, and loosened the string and pulled it aside. I used an exacto knife to scrape off the old parchment, then lightly sanded the area clean. With the new cello, Ifshin Violins had sent along a handful of replacement tabs - which are small, thin, ovals of parchment about a half inch long. I put a large droplet of superglue on one of these and eventually got it clamped in place on the bridge. After it dried, I restrung the a-string and tuned it. Today, it sounded better.
I voted today. I have never missed a vote, since I was first eligible to vote. When I turned 21, the 26th Amendment changed the voting age to 18. In 1972, I drove five hours in from the "country" to the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica where I waited another three hours in line so I could cast my ballot against Richard M. Nixon and the Viet Nam war - for all the good it did. If I wasn't going to be home on election day, I voted absentee. I've voted in several elections that were very close. One congressional election was decided by one vote; a governor was elected by a mere 90 or so. Some elections were as elemental as local service area board member run-offs.
I don't understand why so many people can't be bothered to vote. After watching the elections in Iraq this last year, I hoped some of our negligent non-voters would be inspired. It didn't happen. Even though our country's voting population seems split almost 50/50 along strong ideological lines, the fact that any of us can stand up and say - without any fear of retribution - what we think and who we want to "lead" us, regardless of which party is in power, is a remarkable achievement. Nevertheless, I guess the right to vote includes the right not to vote?
In Argentina, voting is compulsory. You will be fined you if you don't vote!
I had seen recommendations to use superglue or white glue for this particular item. I did go to great lengths to protect the cello from any drips.
Rest assured, I'd never consider using superglue anywhere else on my cello.
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Sunday, August 20, 2006
I have put a lot of effort, these past two or three days, into fingering drills. I started by playing the fifth interval scales on each string; e.g.: D-open, E-1, F-2 (or F#-3), G-4, and A-open; then repeating it in second position: D-open, E-1, F-1 (or F#-1), G-2, and A-4; then merging it all together: D-open, E-1, D, F-2 (or F#-3), D, F-1 (or F#-1), D, G-4, D, G-2, D, A-open, D, A-4; and then back down again; also with other similar variations. I played these over and over again until my fingers just began to fall into place automatically. Then the same with the other strings. After these drills, there wasn't much time left for playing my repertoire - but what I did play sounded pretty poor. I think this is due in large part to bowing. I'm not sure where to improve - clearly it's time for another lesson.
This brings me back to my discussion a few days ago about quantum mechanics. Each tiny movement, or position is a microskill. There are thousands - maybe tens of thousands - of such quantum skills involved in properly playing that A-4 on the d-string. In general, we can only be conscious of a few larger combinations of these skills. We can't be aware of every one of the muscles involved in curling the pinkie tip just right and pressing it down with the right amount of pressure to stop the string. As we play this note, our feedback loops probably tend to refine the point on the string, what part of the finger actually presses against the string, how the other knuckles in that finger are bent, what muscles in the forearm are used, etc., etc. In addition, there are all the other instructions just to that left hand, wrist, arm, elbow, shoulder, that are involved in making the note ring true, and then there are all the muscle instructions going on with the right fingers/hand/wrist/arm/elbow/shoulder in order to pull the bow across that string to produce the note.
Obviously, the more we can control each of these quantum movements and positions, the better our skill will be and the more we will be able to produce quality music. The trouble is that even the best of us is unable to completely master all of these quantum skills. I doubt if anyone would even be able to fully identify all the quantum-skills involved in just this one action of playing A, much less be able to consciously refine more than a few of them. But, clearly, the more we can do so, the better we'll sound. If this many quantum-skills are involved in playing just that one note, imagine how many are involved in playing a symphony!
So is this the difference between a good player and a mediocre player? ...that the better player has mastered more of these tiny quantum skills? and is thus able to apply these skills in a way that better pleases the ear?
Yesterday, Z had several friends over for a belated birthday party. I was appointed driver. Since once friend lives in Kenai, another in Sterling, and another beyond Kasilof, I ended up putting about 150 miles on the car just collecting everybody, taking them to the house for the afternoon, then dropping them off at a movie, and finally, after a long day, taking everybody home. I quite enjoyed it. Since I was a necessary chauffeur, they eventually forgot I was even present in the car with them. It was nice to be able to listen to the group laughing and joking and jesting with one another. Clearly they enjoyed themselves a lot. It was interesting and really gratifying to experience this small glimpse into the lives and interests of 14-year-olds.
School begins next week. Three of these kids started kindergarten together 10 years ago and have been friends ever since. Unfortunately, this year, they are splitting up into different high schools. I sure hope they can find a way to retain their connection. It really shouldn't be as hard as it might have been just a few years ago. They have spent much of the summer together on-line, where their avatars team up against beasts and enemies of all types in the various on-line role playing adventure games. These games let them "chat" with each other as they play. And they also stay in touch by instant messenger when they are online. Even when they are physically together, they often will go online into these worlds and play side-by-side.
I did notice one other interesting thing from yesterday: between their iPods, MP3 players, and laptop computers, they never seemed to listen to a complete song. They'd call up something from the menu, everyone would comment, "yeah, I like this one...", or whatever, and then after 45 seconds or so, they'd open another one. In nearly three hours of driving around yesterday, I don't think I heard one complete song. When I first began listening to music, we had 45's that we stacked on the changer and would listen to the whole stack in sequence. Eventually we moved up to the 33 1/3 albums, which lasted up to 20 minutes per side, but I seldom remember swapping from album to album in mid-play - even if that meant enduring the cuts that I didn't really care for.
Maybe it's the combination of availablity and the ease of access to mp3 files that has led to increased sampling, and less focus on the song in its entirety. It could also be due, in part, to the quality of the music itself... some of what they are listening to is really quite good; a larger part is generally anonymous and disposable; but I was surprised to hear more than a few interesting songs in their playlists from 30 and 40 years ago.
By the way, do you practice in front of a mirror? Because it's a great feedback tool.
My teacher has been suggesting using a mirror for quite some time now...
It helps me when I'm getting overwhelmed with all the technique stuff.
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Friday, August 18, 2006
Getting past it
As for recording myself, I guess I'll keep on doing it, but as suggested by one recent commenter: I'll try to wait a while before listening to it, I'll try to be more accepting of what I hear, and I'll try to listen for the good things....
Looking back through my blog entries, I see numerous discussions about these same feelings of inadequacy and discouragement many, many times. I guess it comes with the territory. What has worked, every time, has been to keep on playing every day, without fail. Sometimes, it helps to alter my practice routine - do more and/or different drills, pay more attention to bowing, play the pieces in reverse order, etc. Soon enough, I'll experience another one of those exceptional days where it all seems to come together.
Way back in my teen years, I can still remember thinking how my clarinet sounded so rotten (even without hearing a recording of it). I chalked it up to cheap equipment, even though deep inside, I knew it was lack of skill born out of a failure to practice adequately - or even at all. This time around, though, I practice diligently.
My earlier attempt to describe what I understand about measurement, and an interesting round of comments that followed it, has rattled around in my head quite a bit since then. These past few days, as I have been reflecting on my reaction to hearing my recorded sounds, I've thought a lot more about this issue. I doubt I'll ever be able to adequately convert my jumbled thoughts into words about a topic as complicated as this one, but I'm trying...
Using quantum mechanics, everything to do with playing the cello can be subdivided into minute discrete units (quanta). Each quantum is a skill, such as a small muscle movement or position (for example, the angle of the tip of the pinkie finger while playing A on the d-string in second position), which is directed by a complex mixture of sensory feedbacks (audio, touch, visual). As we play, we continually use this feedback to refine that discrete muscle movement - along with hundreds of thousands of other tiny discrete skills just like it - to improve the result, and make that A sound better and better. Eventually, the muscles memorize that particular action and are able to perform it automatically when needed.
With so many other quantum skills being studied at the same time, we often don't even realize that we have specifically "learned" that particular movement. The difficulty, described by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, is measuring our progression along this path of acquiring skills. Like an astronaut gazing down onto the surface of the earth, we can only see the green of the forests but not their individual trees. So it is with learning to make music. We hear nicer music, but we can't necessarily detect which particular skill has improved. Music teachers are attuned [sorry, couldn't resist] to monitoring the development of the more important skill sets, and can probably tell where a student has successfully attained a skill. We students usually can't tell.
In several previous entries, I've talked about the obstacles of playing with my mangled left forefinger and how I've employed different types of rubber fingercots to allow me to play without pain. A few months ago, I noticed a callous was slowly growing on the pad near the tip (under the fingercot, no less). Several times since then, I tried to play without the fingercot, but it felt as if the string was slicing into my fingertip. A few days ago, I tried once again, and was surprised to realize that I had played for two hours without any discomfort. Without the rubber tip, my forefinger is having to "relearn" its proper locations on the fingerboard. But now, after four days of playing without one, I no longer even think about it! What a relief!
Today, at the Ninilchik fair, Z and I saw a wig lying in the sawdust in the goat and llama barn. None of the goats or llamas were wearing wigs, I don't think... We're still trying to picture someone exiting that barn bald-headed and apparently unaware!
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Recorded a Practice Session
I recorded several pieces using the Audacity program that I had recently downloaded. It is so simple to use. A microphone is plugged into the mic port on the computer and the record button in the Audacity program is keyed. One playback feature shows the waveform of the recording, over time. The shape of each note's waveform lets me assess the length of that note (compared to the time markings on the top and compared to all the other notes) - good for checking tempos and rhythms - , whether the note starts (or stops) abruptly - good for checking staccato and hooked bowing - , the purity of the note (smooth sides or lots of extraneous peaks) - good for checking the "evenness" of the note, etc. Very useful. Still, I'd also like to be able to tell the note's frequency - to help judge the intonation better, but I don't think that feature is available (as far as I could tell). It will take a lot of playing around to figure out all the features.
I was so appalled at my sound, that I soon stopped recording the pieces. It put me off for the rest of the session.
Now, I'm wondering if I'll ever get better at intonation. On several pieces, I have reached the point where the proper fingers hit all the right notes - generally, at least ;-} and I am getting better with rhythm and tempos - more or less; but the intonation in those recordings was poor. The Audacity waveforms also showed that some notes were rather flabby-looking compared to others.
Sure, some of this could be just due to a bad day - it has been raining again - a lot! Sometimes I'll feel pretty good about the sounds from my cello. Some days even seem magical. But today wasn't even close. A few more issues to talk over with my teacher, I guess.
I got an email from a reader who is involved in the Central Peninsula Orchestra, inviting me to attend their Monday night sessions starting in September. I had been thinking about this for some time, and I intended to talk this over with my teacher at our next lesson. Now, however, after hearing that measly, weak, tinny sound today, I'm not sure I'm really ready to inflict myself on anyone else.
Another brown bear, in our backyard!
Just after lunch, in between rain squalls, I went outside to inspect the lawn - the rain (along with more lime) is helping there, at least. After I came back inside, I glanced out the window and saw a brown bear slowly walking through the yard - less than 3 minutes after I'd been out there. It wandered around for a few moments and then ambled off down the hill towards the creek. It wasn't a "large" bear, but big enough... Of course our camera was in another room and by the time we got it, the bear was gone.
This is only the second time we've seen a bear in our yard (the last time was in the fall of 1994 - when we watched one try to destroy Z's superplastic sandbox - it failed, didn't even leave a mark on it). I'm guessing that this bear is feasting on some of the tired-out king salmon that are trying to work their way up the creek to spawn. Y saw a bear a few weeks ago just half a mile up the road near the state park campground. We think it's the same one, making rounds.
There was a time, way back when, that Z would play in a fort he built on the side of the hill. The dog would usually hang around nearby, but sometimes she would wander back up to the house and doze on the deck, leaving Z down there alone... Even now, years later, it's unnerving to think about him down there by himself, with a juvenile brownie ambling around looking for trouble...
Seems like there have been a lot more bear sightings around here these last few years. Earlier this summer, my brother saw a sow and cub running through the woods next to his house. That's the first one he's seen in 25 years out there. Last fall, a friend who lives nearby, described watching a young bear systematically destroy their apple trees and vandalize the place; like it was on a rampage..
We are clearly conscious of bear attacks on hikers and campers in places like Kodiak Island, and Chugach park; occasional encounters with joggers near the fringes of our local communities - at the interface with the wilderness; and incidents with fishermen at Russian River; as well as one peculiar bear encounter - who could forget the self-annointed "bear whisperer" who got himself and his girlfried killed and eaten by a bunch of bears in Katmai a few years ago? They're making a movie about that idiot, I heard.
"They" say that bears usually try to avoid contact with humans, but these recent incidents suggest that lately some bears haven't been playing by those rules.
I find more and more that I recognize the tone of a particular note rather than comparing it to another note. I know how G, for example, sounds on my particular cello. Change cellos and intonation takes a minor hit until I get used to its tone for each note.
I read a little post by famed fiddler Mark O'Connor saying that his intonation degraded quite a bit after he played electric violin exclusively over several months. He wasn't getting the feedback of the sympathetic vibration of the strings and fiddle to inform his ear. But he didn't notice it until he recorded himself and compared it to his recordings before.
I have some exercises I used to do that I feel helped my intonation. They're modified versions of the target practice exercises in the Mooney Positions books. Some of it is a bit advanced for you, but I think it wouldn't hurt to play the parts you feel comfortable with. Perhaps you'd like me to convert them to PDF and email them out to you.
I've been trying to hit the ringing tones on my cello, which I've been able to find for most of the notes in first position - except the third finger notes and E (d-string) and B (a-string). (I am getting a nice ringing tone for the new higher E on the a-string.)
The Mooney target practice has sure helped me find my way in second position. Thank you for offering to send me your modified versions. I'm looking forward to working on them.
Everyone struggles with some techniques, maybe another cellist will have an idea, or can show you something new. Not replacing a consistent teacher of course, but sometimes you just need someone else's opinion.
Besides, in an orchestra you can hide a little bit when you're not getting something, but still make beautiful music as a whole. I find playing with a group carries me along a bit when I've hit a rough patch, or I'm not feeling so motivated, but being in rehearsal is practising whether I like it or not.
I just love performing, playing on my own is not enough for me. It's indescribable having someone come up to you, amazed and excited because of what they heard.
My teacher, who just finished a performance degree at university and has been playing since he was 7 or something, still has bad intonation days. When I said in class 'Arrgh I was getting that before, now I can't seem to make it sound right', he said to me 'Welcome to the world of strings'.
Ha! So don't beat yourself up about it. We'll all get there in the end.
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Saturday, August 12, 2006
Kenai Peninsula Orchestra
These last two weeks have sure been interesting, and quite intense for the KPO, I'd imagine. I sure am grateful for the opportunity to experience this kind of live music, if only for a brief time.
Tonight, after dinner, the sun finally came out after several days of rain and clouds, and we were privileged to enjoy the last four hours until sunset. I am such a sun addict. When it is cloudy and gray, I start to feel uncomfortable and ill at ease, restless, bored, anxious. Then, with no warning the sun appears, the clouds drift off, the sky turns an intense blue. My dark mood quickly fades, and in no time at all: "life is great", "we really have it made", "isn't this a fine place to be living", and so on. I really ought to think about moving somewhere with more sun, maybe San Diego.
It was so inspiring to watch the four cellists playing last night. Maybe one day.... I'm moving right along with my own cello playing. I've comfortably integrated the second position shift "etudes" into my half-hour warmup. I've been working on getting my fourth finger to ring clear on the new higher notes on all four strings. As I play each piece, I've been trying to incorporate some of the goals I enumerated in the last post (below). I usually play anywhere from 20 to 25 pieces every day, but I'm most actively "working" on nine new and recent (last month or so) ones. Each offers a different challenge; most of them use second position. The five in Mooney are relatively simple but pleasant tunes that drill shifting across strings. They include all the strings, with numerous shifts up and down and across.
The Suzuki 2 pieces are all progressing, steadily. Each day I gain something. The Mozart piece sounds better and better. Today, for the first time, I heard myself playing a real portato pulse in one of the early Suzuki 1 pieces. It feels so good to be able to play a pleasing piece by and for myself (for example the Bach Minuet 3, or the new Handel Chorus), and actually like how I am making it sound.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
I've run across this concept in many discussions about learning music. I'm going to have to think about what sort of goals I could use; for example:
- Play through slowly and carefully, concentrating on rhythm, then concentrating on intonation.
- Identify one or two segments that I stumble over (every time, often, or even once in a while), and work on them (break it down into small discrete parts, play it through slowly, repeating many times, combine the parts, play several times at increasing tempo, etc.)
- Play the piece at slow-slow-slow tempo using a metronome.
- Focus on holding the longer duration notes (dotted quarters, halves, dotted halves, etc.) exactly.
- Start the piece at a random measure, play through to the end and from the beginning back to the start point.
- Imagine performing the piece on stage in front of an audience, making it "real", at tempo, not stopping (or grimacing) regardless of slips.
During our lessons we cover so much material, and talk about so many things, that it's only later that I recall a comment such as the topic of this post. I don't even remember how I answered her. I'd like to record our sessions, so I could go over everything later.
And, another thing: she suggested she would be willing to record the duet parts (and/or the main part itself) of the pieces I am working on, so I can play along at home. But she said all she has is a minidisc recorder; I don't have a minidisc player. I recently downloaded a music recording and editing program called Audacity (which I found through Jennifer's blog, Perfect Fifths). I need to research whether I can use it to record our sessions - and her duet parts - directly to my laptop computer and later save it on CDs, or whatever. I haven't explored the audacity functions yet, to know how to do this nor how much memory would be needed to save an hour's session.
Today we (Y and Z came along!) went to the Kenai Community Library for a Luncheon Concert by the Central Peninsula Youth Orchestra - seven or eight violins, a viola, and a cello - no woodwinds, horns, or percussions. The group played a handful of short pieces. The director commented that the group is actually called the Central Peninsula Youth and Community Orchestra, and that it was open to all ages and levels. The only requirement was that you have to be able to read music.... hmmm.... I wonder when I'll have enough confidence in my abilities to be able to join them. Several months ago, I ran across a fellow cello student, who commented that this group needed more cellists... I figure I might have been able to play half to 2/3 of the pieces (with a lot of practicing beforehand) that they covered today.
I find I often pretend I'm performing a piece, that's often my goal. And I take notes during my classes, otherwise I forget things.
Don't some of the Suzuki books have play along CDs? I don't use them, so I'm not sure, but I thought I saw that at the shop.
(thanks for the mention by the way!)
I plan to bring my laptop and microphone to my next lesson and try out Audacity.
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Tuesday, August 08, 2006
I hate my treadmill, too
5 days a week
4.75 miles per hour
2.35 miles each day
1,175 miles and 250 hours
(10 pounds fat)
Fine summer days, at last!
Finally, after a long wait, we are enjoying warm sunny days, with light breezes, and hardly any bugs. We've been out at our new property installing fencing to mooseproof several trees we bought on sale this weekend. How nice to be outside!
Today's lunch concert was Jack Will and Sue Biggs on the patio of the local coffehouse. Nice. Everyone seemed to be there to enjoy their music. Tomorrow, the Kenai Peninsula Youth Orchestra will play at the Kenai Library for lunch. I am really looking forward to that.
I'll have to talk a little more about measurement one of these days. My post on this topic generated a little discussion (thanks to everyone who commented!), which made me realize that I really haven't gotten to the core of this issue, myself. So, I'll probably come back to this topic, now and again, as I try to figure it out.
In my cello studies, I really feel like I'm on a roll, right now. I've incorporated the second position exercises into my warmup routines, and I'm finding it easier and easier to get those shifts accurately. I am really enjoying learning several new pieces both in Suzuki 2 and Mel Bay's "Position Pieces for Cello".
I love exploring a new piece - first figuring out if I'm already familiar with the tune from hearing it at some time in the past, then finding the parts that I can quickly play relatively easily, exploring those parts that will take a little bit of practice and repetition, and finally probing the parts that might need some serious study. For these pieces (at least) I'm not really having to struggle to figure them out - that's not to say I am even playing them adequately, yet. Instead, although there's still a lot of work to do on them, I actually feel as if I am 'ready' to take them on. That's what feels so good! :)
Erin's blog today, Playing without thinking, sort of, describes a specific wrist movement with her bow, which is:
... definitely going to be one of those think about it without really thinking about it techniques... Now I just have to get it going consistently. Without thinking too much about it, of course.Nicely put! Learning how to play the cello has been a long series of specific small movements, positions and postures that I have to first figure out how to do, then do over and over again until I get it right every time, and finally end up doing without thinking. The real work, however, is putting all of these small skills together, fluently, to make music.
A lot has happened in 8 months. Maybe this is going to be the way to measure my progress.
Sunday, August 06, 2006
I've been on this fascinating journey for 8 months, now.
Saturday, we started off with the C scale - I was playing my first finger flat on all the strings. I had adjusted my endpin rather long, and maybe was overcompensating. As well, this may be due to stiffness in my shoulders and hands after the 75 minute drive. Then we moved onto the second position pieces. I think I played the Mooney pieces, "Fanfare" and "Skating", OK, although I still need to work on a few sections. Also the "Elephant Waltz" which offers an interesting string change from second to fourth finger. I'll begin working on "The Tired Tortoise" and "The Whale's Song". She gave me some suggestions how to practice these parts... take it slow, stop to make the shifts. Don't speed up until I have it right, and only then do it gradually. It might actually take several practice sessions to bring these segments up to appropriate speed with the rest of the piece.
I always feel as if I should immediately play a piece as if it's a concert performance, so I try to play it rapidly long before I'm ready (capable). On the other hand, when I am performing a piece - for my teacher for example - I will stop in the middle if I miss a note and either start it over or give up. When I am performing, I need to push past these mistakes and keep on playing. I couldn't stop in the middle of a piece if I were on stage, so I need to learn not to dwell on the mistakes and just play on. In this light, she suggested I read "The Inner Game of Music", by Barry Green and Timothy Galway.
I worry so much about intonation (that's why I usually stop in the middle of a piece) but I don't seem to be that put out by my rhythm and tempo problems.
When I am learning a piece - before actually "performing" it, I should be working through it in parts. Playing slowly - using pizzicato as needed - first learn the notes and the rhythm. Then identify the "challenging" sections (both fingering and bowing - and rhythm) and work on them. Try playing in steps: set the fingers, set the bow, play the note, stop, repeat. Do this over and over, slowly. Don't try to push to speed until I have it right at slow tempos. Gradually add them back into the piece, playing the whole thing slowly and evenly until I have it right. Only then, start bringing it up to speed.
I described that in my daily practices I've been playing all the Mooney second position "target practices" and Suzuki "position etudes" on each string 10 times each, which take up to half an hour to run through. I told her I was thinking about cutting back a bit, and doing these as part of my initial warmup session when I normally play scales and arpeggios. She agreed it would be fine, suggesting I need only do three of four repeats of each segment, at this point in time.
We played through the two Bach Minuets in Suzuki 2. I'm getting them fairly well, and it was clear what sections needed work. I still have to play out the longer notes to full value. She suggested I'm ready to start working on the Handel piece, "Chorus from 'Judas Maccabaeus'".
Finally, we talked about my daily practices. I explained that I run out of time (and energy after about 2 hours) to get through the warmup, the Suzuki 1 pieces, the 2nd position drills, the fiddle tunes, and the newer pieces in Suzuki 2. I've started playing the Suzuki 1 pieces by alternating odd number pieces on odd days, and the even numbered ones on even days. This still seems to overwhelm my time. I'm wondering when I can let some of these older pieces slide - how often should I be playing them to keep in shape?
Since I've put aside the Bach 2 Minuet in frustration (those challenging 9 notes), she suggested I go for two weeks without trying it (no cheating) and then we'll start with it at our next lesson. Maybe, I'll be surprised....
Yesterday afternoon we spent several hours working on our land on Tustumena Lake Road, transplanting various bushes and plants to try to fill the large ugly gravel slash left in the side of our hill by the electric contractor that installed the transformer and our meter. Earlier this week I had installed an outlet box with a 50 amp motorhome outlet, burying the 70 feet of cable in conduit about 12 inches deep along the side of the dirt/gravel pad on our hilltop. We left at about 4:30 and went home. Later in the evening, since it was so nice outside - clear and sunny, we decided to take our motorhome up there for the night, to try out the power supply and watch the bright blue sky slowly darken into night - at this time of year, the light begins to fade at about 10 pm and eases into a semi-darkness over the next few hours.
When we arrived at 9:30 pm, Y got out to help me park the motorhome next to the power outlet, and came running back in to tell us that there were bear tracks all over the place. Sure enough the soft dirt that I had just raked over the trench carrying the cable from the meter to our plugin clearly showed the footprints of a rather large bear. The prints were sharply defined, because the soil beneath the surface was still a bit damp from that morning's rain. On more than 20 prints that sank at least half an inch or more into the fresh sand/dust, we could clearly see the pad of the foot, five toes, and five claw marks. These tracks covered some of our own footprints from earlier that afternoon. It appears the bear, which was quite large, came onto the pad from the north, stopped and backtracked to investigate our new plugin box, then travelled south to investigate the meter box, and then turned and headed down the hill to the east.
I sure wish we had brought our camera. By morning the tracks had dried out to near invisibility.
Wow! A big brownie walking around our place... just a few hours earlier we had walked all over the place, into the brush, etc., without a second thought! Close call.
The first time we'd seen bear tracks was when our driveway was laid down in early June. I had assumed the bear would have just moved on; but apparently it returns to scout its territory. Earlier in the afternoon we saw a moose and calf cross Tustumena Road not too far from our subdivision road. These bear tracks were only a 1/4 mile east of where that moose had been. For that matter, there's a small farm just a mile down the road with cows and horses. I wonder if the bear bothers them?
We went back today and planted a bunch of trees we'd bought at half price at a local nursery. I also cut down a few ragged cottonwoods off to the east that were half dead. Now we have to go back and install some wire fencing around each tree and bush to keep the moose from eating everything.
With a nice view of the Kenai Mountain Range to the east, and the Illiamna and Spurr volcanos to the west, we have been thinking about building a house on our hill, which capitalizes on the 360-degree vistas. We've been talking about a four-story house, with the ground floor for kitchen, dining, and utilities; the second floor for two bedrooms and a bath; the third floor for a living room; and the fourth floor with a music room, a sewing room, and roof-top deck - we'd cover/enclose part of the deck to extend its use beyond our short summers. The top two floors would have a lot of windows to take advantage of the fantastic views - above most of the trees! The building's footprint would be quite small, but it would have to have a substantial foundation and framing to support four floors. While there'd be lots of exterior walls and windows, there'd only be a small roof.
It's fun to dream...
I know this is one of my own longstanding problems, as I had it with flute as well.
I am envious how dedicated and structured you are at your practise, I'm a bit haphazard sometimes, though I did try going through some hard bits slowly and breaking them down like you do, and it helped quite a bit. So thanks for that!
Thanks for the comments and back -link in your blog! I agree that music lessons should be enjoyable to the student... it's enough of a challenge for the kids to have to focus and practice every day - with all the parental pressures to keep at it while their friends are out playing... At the least, they should be able to play music that they like - too bad more music book writers don't pick up on this and gear the etudes and drills to that concept.
As an adult learner, I recognize the purpose of the repetition and drills regardless of their "quality"; and I realize that if I want to get better, I just have to do it.
As for becoming a flute teacher, I say go for it! It ought to help you as a cello student...
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Thursday, August 03, 2006
And another concert
[Interesting name! The amanita muscaria is a highly toxic mushroom - remember the mushroom that the hookah-smoking caterpillar lols on in Alice in Wonderland? Some varieties of amanitas contain the psychoactive chemicals ibotenic acid and muscimol. They are best known for their distinctive appearance - bright red with white spots. Many years ago I ran across a group of amanitas in the woods - I brought one home and left it outside on the deck, only to watch a squirrel steal it, piece by piece!]
Their music was classical, which should have fit with the coffeehouse setting, but... too often the chatter (and the occasional frothing) overpowered their sound. I sat near the front and still had to cup my ear to try to tune out the loud conversation at the table behind me.
Nevertheless, if you are going out for lunch or coffee to a place that has live entertainment, then allow it to entertain you (and allow the other diners to be entertained as well), or go somewhere else. It's fine to converse with your tablemates, but try to be fair to the rest of the room...
Sigh, again. I guess that makes me a curmudgeon...
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Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Another luncheon concert
Fewer than 30 people attended (less than half of the restaurant was occupied), and unfortunately many of them felt that they had to talk louder to be heard over the music. Aargh! I almost leaned over to the table next to me to tell them to shut the hell up! I heard the first person in that group who arrived tell the waitress that they wanted to sit near the music. You'd think this meant they had come (like many of us) to hear the music, right? Not a chance. As each one arrived and sat down, they went through an obscenely loud commotion of greetings and menu discussions, and then proceeded to bleat about their jobs, families, neighbors, etc. for the next hour! Why then did they ask to sit by the "stage"? They could have sat anywhere else and would have been less disruptive. I couldn't believe their rudeness, not only to we listeners, but to the musicians as well.
It is sad that in this community of more than 15,000 people, less than 20 turned out for a free hour-long feast of sound presented by some of the best musicians in the state. Yesterday it was the same thing. I'll be surprised if more than 75 poeple turn out Friday night for the Devere Quartet's performance. Where has music appreciation gone? The Kalgin Island Quartet hardly played much "classical" music. They included lots of Joplin and the Beatles in their playlist today.
I guess live music is no longer considered a treat in our culture (unless it is one of those extremely high-priced performances by one of the "hot" or "once-hot" rock bands on a tour). National packaged radio has almost killed off our appreciation of good music - and they now only play what sells. Since most of us don't buy a lot of music anymore (no wonder, considering the cost and the garbage that is packaged and sold as "popular" music), in the end, the people who are dictating what we hear on the radio are the few teenaged kids discovering music for the first time in their lives and are able to spend their allowances on what they've been "told" - by the same radio stations - are the latest hot groups.
Recently a local radio station popped up that plays an eclectic mix of classical, pop, rock, country, international, etc.; KWVK (89.9 FM); which often impresses me (Laurie Anderson! even EmmyLou Harris!) and sometimes challenges me (lots of harpsichord - blech - at least it's usually Bach). I hope it lasts....
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
In the ICS forum, Cello Chat, so many of the newer players identify themselves by what Suzuki book they are working on (or sometimes, which piece). [Others talk about what grade they are at (apparently some sort of European system, which sets out various pieces and technical skills for each level).] Sometimes a poster will say they are in Suzuki Book 4 after only six months (although a few have described spending two years in Book 3, or whatever). These fast-trackers are usually met with a lot of doubt and sometimes thinly disguised scorn.
How could anyone master all the skills presented in so short a period of time? Can they actually play all the pieces in these books, at tempo, with clarity, precision and beauty? If so, bravo! If not, why are they pushing so quickly? Do they think they will become better players sooner?
I guess it is believable that some students can pick up a new piece and play it through more or less accurately by sight-reading, if that piece is within (or even just above, maybe) their current skill range. But there are so many basic muscle skills that have to be mastered; muscle memories that have to be imprinted; placements of arms, hands, and fingers that have to be worked out; finger changes and bowing strokes that have to be learned. Repetition, repetition, repetition: the only way I know to master the cello. The Suzuki method is carefully designed to teach these things, by working through the pieces one by one (at a macro level, I guess, the learning is stepwise, it's just that we don't necessarily become experts before moving on; often we have to work on them for months before we become any good at them).
In the end, though, skill mastery is in the ear of the beholder. Most of us rely on our teachers to guide us along, to continually direct our attention to our deficiencies with tips and advice on how to improve them. (I wonder how people who have no teacher handle this?) Still, at what point do our teachers give up trying to help us improve a particular point and just accept that we aren't going to get any better at this or that skill, that it's "good enough". And start moving on.
I have read more than a few posts in Cello Chat by mid-level students who describe starting up with a new teacher (for whatever reason - relocation, schedule conflicts, etc.) who immediately take them back one or two "books" and start over at a much earlier level. I'm guessing these teachers aren't yet willing to accept their previous social promotions, at least until they've tried to work on improving these skills themselves.
So, if I report that I've "just begun Book 2", what does that mean? Clearly I'm still in the very early stages of learning the cello, just beginning to work on shifting into second position, still struggling with slurs and string changes, still working on mastering the staccato. However, this doesn't describe my problems with those first nine notes in Bach's Minuet #2, or my struggles with holding the dotted quarter notes in The Happy Farmer for their full count, or my occasional failure to get the B-C-D, B-C-D combination right in Rigadoon.
Has my teacher socially promoted me on these? I don't think so. On my part, I haven't stopped working on them. I haven't put them aside. I still play these challenges daily (except for the mini-vacation I'm taking from the Minuet). I am still improving on these.
But now I've come back to my original question. How do we measure the progress of a cello student? What is good? Who decides? I'm nowhere near accomplished enough to be able to say one cellist's performance is better than another's. Heck, I'm only just beginning to be able to tell the difference, and quite imperfectly at that. How do I know if I'm any good?
Is my teacher just humoring me? I guess it is largely depending on my goals at the time. Obviously, if I wanted to become a concert soloist, I would hope my teacher (after seriously trying to convince me that I was crazy) would be pushing me pretty hard to perfect each point along the way. However, since my goals aren't that lofty, I'm assuming she's continually assessing me against the vague and rather ill-defined goals that I have set out. Based on that, I assume she will not be pressing for perfection at any level. The degree of acceptablity is probably going to be a flexible and moving target as I move along. Obviously, too, since my lessons are two weeks apart, she would be in a great position to make incremental assessments of my progress.
Midnight Sun Trio
The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra is hosting its Summer Music Festival, which includes a series of luncheon concerts. Today, I had the pleasure of listening to an hour of the Midnight Sun Trio playing at "Charlotte's Restaurant" in Kenai. Two violins and a cello, apparently college-aged, they were quite talented and seemed to have fun together.
I was disappointed that the lunch crowd didn't show much respect by keeping quiet (or at least muting their conversations). From what I could tell, less than a half dozen of us were there to hear the music, the rest of the crowd was there for lunch and may or may not have appreciated the music as background for their own conversations. I really wanted to stand up and say a word or two about courtesy, but realized that it wouldn't do any good, and would just make people angry - and probably embarrass the musicians. I guess that is one of the crosses performing musicians have to bear.
I am looking forward to several more luncheon concerts, as well as a few more formal presentations in concert settings. I am hopeful some of the other venues will be a little more supportive of the musicians.
It's stressful, but you have a good idea of where someone is at musically when they tell which grade they're working on.
I know the discussion you're talking about - I can see where she's coming from in terms of wanting to be further along. When you play a different instrument well, it's so frustrating to be stuck at a beginner level on another one. She probably has rushed herself a bit, but you just can't escape the learning curve.
I've made a bit of peace with that frustration. Hopefully she will too.
Brava to you Erin for joining an orchestra so soon after starting the cello. Do/did you play your flute in any similar orchestral setting? Even if such a group were available locally, I don't think I'd even approach them for another year or so (although I do look forward to our next group recital, because of the opportunity to play with others.)
For flute, I played in school a lot, concert bands, jazz band (played saxophone there actually), pit orchestras for amateur musicals (that was everything from piccolo to every saxophone from baritone to soprano) and in small chamber ensembles for random conferences, and some solo with accompaniment for gallery opening type stuff. I did perform with our school orchestra when they needed some woodwinds, but I hardly practised with them, just once before performance.
The orchestra I joined is very very mellow and quite accepting of everyone learning. They take you even if you've never played music, there are tutors who will teach you from day 1. I'm currently playing with a chamber subset that are people who are a bit more experienced, but not a lot. I think I'm over my head a bit, but I'm making a go of it anyway.
It seems to me the good teachers are especially good at diagnosing what the not-yet-learned elements are. Ah, but the best teachers teach the student how to diagnose the yet-to-be-learned element.
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